Donald Trump told interviewer Hugh Hewitt that Obama was the founder of ISIS, and Hillary Clinton is the terrorist group’s co-founder. Following Hewitt’s invitation to backtrack, Trump still maintained that he meant Obama was the founder of ISIS.
“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” Trump explained. “I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.”
Then Hewitt gave Trump another chance to talk like a rational person, and said, “But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.”
But Trump explained once more,”I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?”
At a rally yesterday Trump described the interview as such: “So I said, ‘the founder of ISIS’—obviously I’m being sarcastic—then, then—but not that sarcastic, to be honest with you.” He implies that Obama really is the founder and cheerleader of ISIS again, in the same sentence in which he claimed it was a sarcastic comment. Is he sarcastically admitting sarcasm?
Finally last night, Trump tweeted, “THEY DON’T GET SARCASM?” in response to CNN’s coverage of the quote, of course with the obligatory Trumpian insult of “Ratings challenged @CNN.” This is hardly the week’s first piece of evidence that Trump is a dishonest egomaniac. It’s not surprising that Trump reportedly watches cable news compulsively, and it is part of the reason why Trump, as a political force, is so conceitedly unstable. His campaign is such a mess express all the time because he binges on the criticism his presidential ignorance invites, and then goes on verbal tirades smearing everything civil about our political system. But read Trump’s comments, verbatim: where is the sarcasm?
Beyond his chronic cable news binging, there is a huge intelligence problem with a potential Trump presidency in that Trump admittedly does not read, in general, and it has no doubt contributed to his short attention span. His lack of focus is readily apparent in interviews and speeches, and it turns explaining himself into a daily struggle. The successes he does have in communication come in two mediums: stream-of-consciousness ramblings of braggado[u]cious vanity, or insecure insults typed into tiny tweets aimed at anyone who doesn’t compliment him on his new emperor clothes.
Hewitt tried to guide Trump toward reality in the interview, but Trump doubled down, as he doubles down on virtually every traditionally career-ending scandal, to the great challenge of his spokespeople. It is copious evidence that Trump is a pathological liar guided by the North Star of unadulterated narcissism. His blatantly televised lying is an especially sociopathic habit in the digital era, where virtually everything gets documented, yet he goes on lying anyway. When called out for lying he shrugs off the real-time fact-checking as if statesmanship and public government are best sans critical thinking.
Besides being lies, his ISIS-founder accusations are a new low for American politics. Yet the quotes’ escape from Trump’s always running mouth are entirely unsurprising occurrences—after all, Trump arguably suggested that his followers should assassinate Clinton recently. His revelry in careless crossings of traditional, political rubicons provide copious evidence of his sociopathy. With doric Trumpian hyperbole, he deflects bullshit-calling and fact-checking with lazy qualifiers, such as “everyone’s liking it,” as if no one in America was appalled at his budding fascism. Meanwhile, Trump is losing votes on a daily basis and endangering red states that haven’t voted blue for decades. His power base is a demographically small number of racists who share their racist thoughts out loud to journalists, and the xenophobia is doing nothing to crack Obama’s consecutive term-winning, Democratic coalition.
Trump delights in describing himself as a truth-teller and a winner, while statistical measurements of his comments and the public’s opinion suggest that he is neither. The mathematics of electoral probability suggest that Clinton may be headed toward a once-in-a-generation-sized landslide, whether Trump acknowledges it or not.
As such, it is a little fascist when Trump claims that unless he is the winner by a landslide, the election will be rigged. This is encouraged by an ongoing conservative effort to “unbias” every polling company’s publishings. The falsehood that Trump is secretly winning the election has the effect of shoving the Trump movement deeper into Trump’s surrealist, platonic cave of conspiracy, and the rigging accusations are like blocking the cave’s exit. Trump performs the role of a xenophobic shadow master, who, with alarming natural talent, is scapegoating entire groups of people for the nativist ego-boosting of a presidential candidacy. Trumpism is an electoral cult in which everyone participating is headed for the disillusionment of a likely Clinton victory.
Remember when Karl Rove suffered a meltdown after Fox News projected Obama’s easy reelection over Romney, despite the hopeful poll “unskewing” in favor of Mitt Romney? Rubicon Don’s character suggests that he will be the biggest sore loser in American history if Clinton wins. Note that Mitt Romney, in contrast, never leaped across the rubicon of accusing the entire American democratic system of being rigged, nor did he refuse to concede his defeat. It is difficult to imagine what Trump would possibly say in such a concessional situation—the concepts of personal defeat and failure are literally not in his vocabulary.
There is one rubicon Trump has not yet stomped over, though, despite his flirtations: active violence. The “Second Amendment people” line may not be the first time Trump has implied shooting people—last January Trump suggested that he could personally shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single supporter—but so far no one has actually taken up arms against Trump’s impending electoral defeat. No Trump supporters have donned brown shirts yet. But the insinuation that Clinton ought to be shot, no matter how sarcastic, is an unequivocal toe over the respective lines of human decency and civic responsibility.
Some Republicans have explained the comments as jokes gone wrong, but what joke is appropriate for a political leader who has societal influence to hint that the murder of his political opponent would solve people’s problems? Neutralizing political opposition is a textbook fascist move.
Sociopathic tendencies aside, though, I do not believe that Trump is sociopathic enough to purposefully incite mass violence. And I do not believe that Republicans in Congress and state capitols would passively follow a Trump tantrum into totalitarian power on the pretense of a “rigged” election. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, somewhat inexplicably, have not dumped Trump yet, though they have the electoral hope to steal the Supreme Court’s slant from Democrats, particularly President Obama. Their Congressional gear-grinding of Merrick Garland is a legislative check on the executive branch that the Constitution does not enumerate, but, judicial intransigence aside, I believe that their political chicanery is not opportunistic enough to allow Trump to incite fascist violence. It remains to be seen.
Because fascism depends on the infamous phenomenon of Good Citizens, the rubicon is not so much Donald Trump’s to cross, since his surrealist campaign is becoming a bit of runaway train that should not be expected to stop by itself. Trump’s verbal, rubicon hopscotch is a political strategy to win single-issue voters whose only democratic motivation is a mixture of blind anger at, and mistrust of, cultural differences. It’s easy politics to take advantage of anger, especially when the flames of fear and rage can be so easily fanned with the type of impetuous campaign bluster Trump has innovated, but the temptation of faux-populism should be resisted.
The real responsibility to rein in Trump and pull him off the rubicon edge of fascist violence lies with Republican leaders. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Reince Priebus: you are enabling Trump. You have grudgingly followed Trump across every rubicon so far, but would political violence be a bridge too far for you?